My Imaginary Guests

I have a funny mental framework when I do physics. I create an imaginary audience in my head to explain things to – it is part of the way I think. For me, teaching and explaining, even to my imaginary audience, is part of the process.

Leonard Susskind

It seems to me that if a noted physicist like Leonard Susskind can admit to having a funny mental framework and imaginary audiences, a simple English professor like me can, too.

My funny mental framework is an occupational requirement when I do literature. I spend a lot of time exploring literary white spaces, I spend even more time reading between the literary lines, and I spend the most time helping my students develop their own funny mental frameworks.

My imaginary audiences are simply a carryover from childhood. Truth be told, my imagination is probably the only part of me that’s still in tact and in shape after all these years. I guess it’s a prime example of “use it or lose it.” Believe me: I’ve used it.

Indeed I’ve had to use it more than ever since Covid’s arrival a little more than two years ago, especially when it comes to house cleaning.

I had just as well tell you up front. I love a clean home, but I hate house cleaning.

It’s tedious. It’s odious. It’s repetitive. And worst of all, it’s never done. Just when I think that I have finished, I discover that I have to start all over again. Where on earth does all that dust come from? And who put all those streaks on my windows right after I cleaned them with streak free window cleaner?

It’s a good thing that my late partner, Allen, felt the same way about house cleaning. We both preferred cooking. (The heady perfume of Thai spices always out fragranced lemony Pledge.) Or gardening. (The wishful anticipation of spring flowers always out did our untidy offices.)  Or hiking.  (The quiet time with nature always out maneuvered the roar of the vacuum cleaner.) Or cycling (The revving up of heart and lungs always out powered mopping the kitchen floor.)

Yet we knew fully well that house cleaning was a necessary evil. So we faced it head on. Occasionally. But no more often than necessary.

We developed a foolproof strategy for keeping our home clean. Invite guests!

If the house didn’t need much cleaning, we’d have dinner guests.

If the house needed a little more attention, we would have overnight guests.

And if the house needed lots of cleaning because we had simply frittered away our spare time with silly things like cooking, gardening, hiking, and cycling, we would have weekend guests.

Never, absolutely never, did we ever let the house get to the point of needing so much cleaning that we had to invite guests to stay longer than a weekend. We took Benjamin Franklin at his word: “Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.”

Whether our guests were with us for the weekend, for an overnight, or just for dinner, we knew that we would have a truly joyful time.

Equally important, or maybe even more, we selfishly knew that we would enjoy the spic-and-span home that preparing for company always brings, almost as magically as a self-cleaning oven–well, at least in my wired imagination.

But all of that was before COVID.

Since COVID, we’ve all had to change the way we live. But I’ll tell you one thing: COVID has not changed the way that I see house cleaning. It’s still tedious, odious, repetitive, and never-ending.

Actually, it’s even more so because since COVID I don’t entertain a lot, especially since winter has kicked in and since Omicron has kicked our butts even harder.

These are the times when I find myself summoning up my imaginary guests.

They’re helping me keep my home clean, the way that I like it to be.

I have lots of real cleaning strategies that I really do use when I conjure up my imaginary guests.

Sometimes my strategy focuses on who my imaginary guests are. If they’re family or friends or neighbors, I rationalize that they’ve seen my home clean at least once before so their memory of that memorable degree of cleanliness will no doubt equal my imaginative degree of imagination. In that situation, the cleaning doesn’t make me break out into a sweat.

But if my imaginary guests are my colleagues, I shift my strategy. They may or may not have seen my home before. And it really doesn’t matter because I know that they are as skilled in exploring white space and reading between the lines as I am. They’ll be exploring everywhere and looking under everything. In that situation, the cleaning makes me break out into a big time sweat.

Either way, just imagine the cleaning that I get done for guests who never come. That’s fine by me.  My home still gets cleaned.

Another strategy focuses on what parts of my home my imaginary guests might visit.

Dinner guests: Kitchen. Dining room. Living room. Guest bathroom. I can get those rooms readied up right fast. Done in an hour.

Overnight guests: Same as for dinner guests plus guest bedroom. No big deal since the guest bedroom is not used that often. Done. Add an extra thirty minutes.

Weekend guests: Same as overnight guests plus the entire rest of the house because they want to see it all. These imagined guests require me to roll up my sleeves and do some deep cleaning. Done, in just one day, but begrudgingly so.

Another strategy that I use to house clean for imaginary guests who never show up is perhaps my favorite though most feared

How soon will they arrive?

Tomorrow? Today? This afternoon? In an hour? They’re in the driveway? No way! OMG! The nerve!

Trust me. Panic can clean a house faster than any other strategy!

I can’t begin to tell you how much I treasure all of my imaginary guests–whoever they are, wherever they are, and whenever it is that they will never arrive. I bless each and every one of them for all that they’re doing to help me with my tedious, odious, repetitive, and never-ending house cleaning.

One day, though, they really might arrive. Oh, how I long for that day to come. Real guests in my clean home. For dinner. For overnight. For a weekend. (For longer? Never.)

When that time comes, I’ll be so proud to show off my spic-and-span home that my imaginary guests and I have maintained, waiting for my real, honored guests to arrive.

13 thoughts on “My Imaginary Guests

  1. Once again, you had me laughing aloud, making my very real colleagues pass me judgingly, lol! It can be so easy to overlook the little things in your home and not see what needs work, cleaning, rearranging, etc. I’ll have to try this approach. But here’s my question: do your imaginary guests *talk* to you, too? ;-)


  2. Perhaps I should try your method. I constantly imagine that the dog will clean his nose prints off of the French doors and will vacuum up his own dog hair. Instead, he stares at me while licking the French doors and then proceeds to shake more hair onto the floor. Time for me to brain storm those imaginary guests and start cleaning!


      • Imagine Monty Don from Gardener’s World is planning to feature your garden on the next episode. It can also be your distraction from housework! I’d much rather pull weeds than dust.


  3. Monty Don! In my wildest dreams! As long as it’s his next episode in his next season, I won’t sweat it!

    Ironically, I just came in from building a small stone garden wall: “like an old stone savage, armed.”


  4. Yesterday, after I had laughed through your very funny post, my daily homemaking site fortuitously presented “How to Find Cleaning Motivation When You Really Don’t Want To.”

    I scanned it with interest, wondering if any of your tips would show up. One did … sort of.
    “Find Your Unique Motivation,” it said. “Put [other people’s] Pinterest boards to good use!”
    I can see where that might work for some people but, having read your post, that sounds pretty boring to me.

    How much more exciting to create individualized cleaning scenarios for each set of imaginary guests!

    And much more doable than, say, starting one’s “spring cleaning,” with its only hint of winding up being that summer will surely put a stop to it.


    • Thanks, Bonnie! I am always delighted when one of my posts brings laughter!

      Cleaning for imaginary guests works beautifully, provided they are invited frequently. I aim for a weekly dinner guest; for a biweekly overnight guest; and a monthly weekend guest!

      For me, that’s enough company to keep my home clean!


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